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Is Humanity Suicidal?

“…what you call the human race was nonviable. That is, while the individuals composing it had strongly developed instincts of self-preservation, the species as a whole was suicidal.”

The above passage appears in “Will You Walk a Little Faster,” a satirical science fiction story written in 1951 by William Tenn, the pen name of the late Philip Klass (1920-2010). The writer was a World War II veteran who taught English and comparative literature at Penn State University. The words quoted are spoken by a representative of an alien race that stands to inherit our planet, under the rules of a peaceful Galactic Federation of intelligent races, after we wipe ourselves out. This being is trying to coax us into accepting a clean and painless method of murdering a million people at a time, without radioactive debris or other mess that the successor race will have to clean up. The first human being who accepts the technology can get it for his or her nation, any takers? The point of the story is, someone will accept this Faustian bargain, and soon every nation will have one, and soon after that, the human race will go extinct.

Is this a fair take on humanity? Obviously, it is not a complete take on what we are. We may indeed be “nonviable,” one of evolution’s little failed experiments that in this case is also causing the sixth mass extinction in the history of life on earth; and also beings capable of boundless love, great heroism, heartbreakingly beautiful works of art, extraordinary insight into the nature of the universe, and so on. Those aspects of humanity might deepen the tragedy of our impending extinction, without necessarily averting it.

The truth is, the future is unwritten, and we just don’t know if humanity will survive its current self-created troubles. But there is enough power in Tenn’s little parable to make us uncomfortable, as it should. I don’t know the details of his service in World War II, but many veterans came home changed by what they had seen and done. The war ended, of course, when the United States dropped two atomic bombs on the Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki, instantly killing tens of thousands of people and sentencing thousands more to a quick or lingering, agonizing death. The long-term effects of high doses of radiation on the human body may not have been widely known or understood at the time, but to Truman and the U.S. military the new atomic bomb was just a much more convenient way of causing the kind of massive devastation and loss of life that Curtis LeMay’s “conventional” bombers had unleashed on Tokyo the preceding March. America would enjoy a monopoly on atomic weapons for twenty years, according to American scientists, but thanks to vigorous spying efforts Stalin had the Bomb by 1949. The world has lived under its shadow ever since, coming close to a massive “exchange” that would have killed millions of civilians numerous times since then. So one presumes that threat is what Tenn had in mind, and it is now rising again thanks to Russia’s war with Ukraine.

At the same time, ultra-nationalist madness led by would-be dictators and mixed with so-called populism and fanatical religion is on the rise around the world. America has already succumbed to it once and, in all sober assessment, I think the odds are better than even that it will do so again between now and early 2025. And this at a time when the manmade climate catastrophe is transforming the “natural” world into one much more hostile to human life as well as most other species, requiring all our reasoning power and a spirit of self-sacrifice to mitigate and/or adjust to. But reason, let alone altruism, is scarcely in fashion.

I have yet to discover a better attitude for each of us as individuals to take in the face of these mounting calamities than one suggested by two seemingly opposed expressions of the ancient religion of Judaism, the twelfth-century rationalist philosopher and religious thinker Maimonides, and the leaders of the Hasidic ecstatic religious movement from the eighteenth century to the present. And that is: imagine that the world is finely balanced between good and evil, or between a better future and a catastrophic one. Imagine each deed you do is a feather that could tip that balance, for good or for ill. Yes, it will take a massive cooperative effort to address the challenges of our time, but that effort begins with eight billion individual decisions in eight billion human hearts: whether humanity wants to live, or to die by its own hand.

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